Sex Robots Can't Automate Emotional Intimacy

Ethicist Oliver Bendel says virtual reality is a game changer and doll-like machines are a tool.

Getty Images / Koichi Kamoshida

Sex robots are a cultural Rorschach test. Where some people see only the loneliness of coitus with consumer electronics, others see a proliferation of pleasure. On Westworld, robotic prostitutes and cowboys were depicted as encrypted hard drives loaded with suffering. They were anthropomorphized even as the audience rooted for them to choose inhumanity, to rebel against that hedonistic selfishness. When some people look at sex robots, they see an inevitability. When Researcher Oliver Bendel looks at sex robots, he sees tools and somewhat off-putting tools at that.

A professor at the School of Economics of the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland, Bendel’s work focuses on the ethics of human interactions with machines. That already includes sex and, Bendel is quick to note, people are still getting married, enjoying each other, and engaging in sexual violence. The robotic sexual revolution has been a quiet affair thus far. It may get louder and it might get mainstreamed, but it won’t change everything because intimacy is both more delicate and more resilient than that.

Inverse spoke to Bendel about what he forecasts to be the biggest developments for sex bots, the dangers of warm genitals, how governments should get involved, and more.

We’re definitely going to see a lot of headlines, but what substantial sex robot developments are we likely to see in the next year?

It would be interesting if love dolls and sex robots could come together. There are signs that this could be the case. Some love dolls are very realistic, most sex robots are not. Aesthetically viewed, they should merge.

That makes sense. But would require a fair amount of capital. Do you think that companies will invest in sex robots or avoid it because it feels taboo?

Companies want to earn money, but I don’t think that this is a big market. Sex robots will remain a niche product. Sill, sex toys are popular, and together with virtual and mixed reality, this could be the biggest thing this year. Some people and the media are sensationalist. That’s why they are interested in sex robots and in men and women who fall in love with machines.

How should governments be reacting to the development of sex robots?

Sex robots will remain a niche product, and I don’t think there will be much necessity for regulations. Adults can do whatever they want to do, provided that they do not affect or disturb others in extreme ways. But I’m against child-like robots in brothels. Perhaps these should be banned.

How sentient do you think people will want their sex robots?

I think most people will be content with simple sex robots without consciousness, without the capacity for suffering and memory. They want special service robots which help them in certain situations. Some people may dream of hyper-realistic artificial sex partners. But it is much easier to bring this to life in a virtual environment.

What new kinds of research are pertinent to sex robots?

It is very important that they can speak with a convincing voice and that they have convincing statements. Adobe VoCo could be an interesting tool because your robot could have the voice of your partner or lover after only 20 minutes of recording.

A lot of people were excited about the news that sex robots with warm genitals could be on sale in 2017. Do you find that likely?

Let’s hope that the genitals cannot overheat. Or explode like some smartphones. Love dolls with convincing skin and flesh are fascinating for some users, and perhaps also warm penises and vaginas will attract them. Perhaps this could lead to new kinds of hand warmers.

This is an extremely hard winter in Switzerland.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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